Black Swan Less than Half Cooked

Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

108 mins. Rated R (Sexual situations, language)

* *

They hype has been enormous. Black Swan hadn’t even opened before Natalie Portman was said to be a wrap for an academy award. Now that it’s here, Ms. Portman may want to wait before she buys a gown for Oscar night. I hate to say it, but a whole lot of Black Swan plays like Showgirls in tutus.

Think that’s harsh? The stories are nearly identical. First, replace Vegas with the New York City Ballet. In Black Swan we have aspirant prima donna Nina Sayres (Portman). She’s basically a good girl, but she’s ambitious and everyone around her tells her she needs to be more aggressive to get to the top. That list includes her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who stood where Nina now stands and had to give up her career when she got pregnant with Nina. Also high on the list is maniacal choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who is equal parts brilliant and smarmy--the sort who wants both to produce groundbreaking ballet and get into the Danskins of his principal stars. Leroy’s bold idea is to produce the classic Swan Lake in such a way that the same dancer is both the white (good) swan and the black (evil and destructive). The perfectionist Nina is ideal as the white swan, but can she summon enough misanthropy to dance the black? Also standing in her way is Lily (Mila Kunis), her understudy, and Beth MacIntryre (Winona Ryder), the washed-up queen whom Nina seeks to supplant and whom Leroy has already cast aside.

A familiar story indeed…. It’s 42nd Street, which was the basis for Showgirls. Nina’s a bit classier than Elizabeth Barkley in Showgirls, but she’s every bit as naïve about what it takes to get to the top. She’s been a pampered princess, fiercely protected (and driven) by her single mother and kept pristine and virginal behind a frilly pink wall of stuffed animals. (Barkley had abusive parents.) So, of course we know what will happen next--Nina’s bubble will burst when she’s pushed to go beyond her expectations. Nina is on course, but others have been her GPS and she has no idea what direction to go when she’s forced to take a detour. How bad does she have to be? With whom must she sleep? Whom must she destroy? Whom can she trust? Yep--just like Showgirls. The only major difference is that, at its core, Black Swan is a tale of Nina’s unraveling rather than her arrival.

With better direction this might have played better, but Aronofsky is so ham-handed that Nina’s descent is telegraphed and plays more like a grade-B horror film than a classy drama. And it really does look a lot like Showgirls, with Cassel standing in for Kyle MacLachlan and Kunis for Gina Gershorn. There’s even a gratuitous lesbian sequence between Portman and Kunis that would have been way more appropriate for Showgirls than for Black Swan. Okay, so Portman is a way better actress than Barkley (who isn’t?) and I’ll concede that the film looks gorgeous and is well acted, though if anyone should win an acting Oscar it should be Cassel, not Portman. In the end, though, Black Swan no amount of high-falootin’ ballet and longhair music can’t disguise the fact that it really is Showgirls with less nudity and crudity--it’s histrionic, campy, and trashy.

PS--It’s not a “chick flick” either; most of the women I know who’ve seen this film agree that it’s not exactly Swan Lake.


Celtic Extravaganzas a Mixed Bag

Welcome to the post-Riverdance Celtic world. Riverdance has toured the world, done a stint at Radio City Music Hall, and its rebroadcasts have been a staple for PBS fundraisers for over a decade. It’s done more to revitalize interest in music from the Celtic lands than anything since the 1961 debut of the Clancy Brothers on the Ed Sullivan Show. Riverdance has also spawned a cottage industry of smug critics, their complaints over the show’s more garish moments fueled in no small part by lead step dancer Michael Flatley’s flamboyant--some would say egotistical--personality. Riverdance begat Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, and Celtic Tiger. Those who like these shows use adjectives such as “theatrical” and “sensational” as compliments; those who don’t use the same terms pejoratively.

I have come neither to praise nor bury Riverdance, rather to offer a few thoughts on a recent viewing of another Irish-themed stage show, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. In my view, all of the so-called “Celtic” stage shows have similar virtues and demerits. Let’s start with this: the purists don’t have a leg to dance on when they slam such shows an “inauthentic.” Celtic music, as scholar June Skinner Sawyers wisely observed, is at core a “marketing term” that has little connection to music’s origins. Very, very little of what is called “traditional” music actually is, and most of what we think of as “Irish” or “Scottish” music is a post-1970s reinterpretation of songs and tunes that were canonized during the nineteenth-century after the Victorians cleaned them up. And, as every musician and fan of music knows, traditions that don’t change wither and die. So let’s just judge these things on their own merit, not some romantic (and mythical) standard.

I caught A Christmas Celtic Sojourn in Northampton, MA at a nearly full Calvin Theatre on December 12. This show is the brainchild of Cork-born Brian O’Donovan, now a mainstay of WGBH (public) radio in Boston. O’Donovan emceed a show that was one-part Riverdance and several parts A Prairie Home Companion--a sprawling night of music, dance, and storytelling loosely structured around Yule themes. O’Donovan is witty and charming--think Garrison Keillor with a brogue. Throughout the evening he acted as the interlude between musical numbers as he read poems and told stories. His Irish fruitcake tale was a delight that found the seam between a cultural education and a shaggy dog tale.

Like Riverdance, Sojourn also featured lots of step dancing. The principle dancer, Donegal-based Caitlín Nic Gabhann, is a veteran of Riverdance, which means there is actually some upper body movement. She has clearly mastered all of the technical aspects of step dancing, but her gestures and arm movements are classically post-Riverdance in that they are informed as much by modern dance as Dublin’s misty past. As good as Nic Gabhann is, she was upstaged by the pint-sized Harney Academy of Irish Dancing troupe of Walpole, MA. These kids--including an Asian-American lad who’s as short as a New York minute--are so good it’s scary. Their precision is such that they conjure visions of vaudeville stage parents pushing them to precocious heights. Crowd pleasures for sure!

The music itself was decidedly mixed. Seamus Egan of Solas served as musical director, but the evening’s low lights were none of his doing. There were some fabulous performances, and how could it be otherwise with fourteen of Celtic music’s brightest and best on stage? The set done by Orkney fiddler Chris Stout and harper Catrionia McKay (from Dundee, Scotland) was nothing short of brilliant--edgy, experimental, dynamic, and wistful one moment, and shot through with energy the next. Many of the group tunes were wonderful, especially when Stout’s bowing was supplemented by the other fiddlers on stage: Hanneke Cassel and Amanda Cavanaugh. Toss in McKay, nonpareil cellist Natalie Haas, squeeze box artist Seán Óg Graham, bass player Chico Huff, and percussionist Eamon Murray and they can light up even a big barn like the Calvin.

The low spots? They occurred mostly when the forced Yule theme emerged. I love Celtic music (whatever it might be) but I’m just bored, bored, bored with Christmas carols and I doubt many of us paid to hear “Joy to the World” and “Oh, Holy Night.” Heck, we’ve been hearing those at the mall since mid-October. I also confess that I am not a fan of Heidi Talbot, the Irish-born lass who crooned most of the carols. Many people think she has a lovely voice, which I’d not dispute, but her whispery little-girl intonation wears thin, which is also an adjective I’d use to describe tones that are mostly upper-range and have little bottom or grit. The vocal star of the evening was actually Robbie O’Connell, a graying vet who was in fabulous voice. His rendition of John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches” was a poignant moment. It also served to remind that Celtic extravaganzas generally work best when they do the unexpected. A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is now in its eighth year and one hopes that as it evolves that it will choose to accentuate what is unique and leave the canned seasonal jollity in the mall.


Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest Lacks Sting

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's [sic] Nest

Directed by Daniel Alfredson

Swedish, 147 mins. Rated R (for scattered unpleasant references, violence)

* * 1/2

Novelist Stieg Larsson left behind most of a fourth “Girl Who” sequel when he died in 2004, and plot synopses for a fifth and sixth book. But, if parts two and three of the film adaptations of Larsson’s books are any indication, this may not be a good thing. Although Larsson was, at his death, the world’s second biggest-selling author, it appears to me that the franchise has pretty much played out the string. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest has only made about $4.4 million in its U.S. release thus far and it’s hard to envision it earning much more--it’s simply a so-so movie that deserves its so-so response.

At the end of part two--and don’t even dream of seeing this one unless you catch parts one and two on video--our anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) was being flown in for emergency surgery--covered in filth and gore and with a bullet lodged in her brain. Well, of course, she survives or there is no part three! The title of the third installment is, however, curious. Lisbeth doesn’t do much kicking because she’s in a hospital room or a prison cell for nearly the entire movie. Part three really centers on crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and his obsession with clearing Lisbeth from the attempted murder charges that hang over her. Opposing his efforts is a secret rogue security force determined to keep a dirty Swedish government secret, even if it means either killing Lisbeth, or putting her back in the nuthouse forever. There are several other baddies floating about, including a neo-Nazi motorcycle gang, Lisbeth’s father, and her half brother, the monstrous Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz).

The plot is thin and largely revolves around whether Blomkvist will release a Millenimum Magazine exposé before the good guys get killed. This segues to a rather standard courtroom drama, complete with the sort of last-minute revelations you’ve come to expect in such movies. Only toward the end of the film do we get action sequences in keeping with the first two films and even here Rapace lacks the fire she’s previously exuded. She plays the part of a woman who is defiant, but definitely worn down by her various ordeals. She plays the part well, but a vulnerable Lisbeth simply isn’t as enticing as what we’ve come to expect. Put it this way--there’s a world of difference between watching the diminutive Lisbeth kick a motorcyclist’s butt and waiting to see if she’ll ever use the phrase “thank you.”

Director Alfredson dropped the ball on several subplot themes that could have beefed up the thin script, including a deeper probing of the affair between Blomkvist and publisher Erika Berger, and more background on the motives of Lisbeth’s psychological tormentor, Dr. Peter Teleborian. And Spreitz was completely wasted in this film, wandering around more like Lurch gone bad than as a fully developed character.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest isn’t a bad film, merely a pedestrian one. Completists will wish to see it, but don’t be surprised if you feel more anti-climax than resolution. After seeing all three I can say that I was thrilled by the first film and diverted by the second and third, but it’s time to put this series to rest. In my view, Hollywood is making a mistake by recasting it and launching an Americanized version of the franchise. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is a classic metaphor for a concept that’s lost its sting.--LV


Crooked Still Moves Beyond Bluegrass Cliches

Iron Horse Music Hall (Northampton, MA)
December 3, 2010

Those who have followed the music entries on this blog (or in print in The Valley Advocate) know that I have been highly critical of the state of modern bluegrass music, which has become paint-by-numbers masquerading as homage to past masters: affected twangy vocals, way-too-earnest mountain gospel, and flat-picked guitar and fiddle breakouts at predicable intervals. It’s as if everyone is trying to channel Bill Monroe and has completely forgotten the New Grass innovations of the 1980s. Until now. A handful of bands have decided it’s time to look at the calendar and bring bluegrass out of the 1930s and into the 21st century. Foremost among them is Boston-based Crooked Still. As they demonstrated on Friday December 3, in the first of three sold-out Iron Horse concerts, bluegrass is ready for some new blood and new directions.

The first of several great things about this concert was the presence of so many young folks in the audience, a sure sign that Crooked Still’s sound is tailored for a new generation. Re: that sound, several instrumental shifts stand out. First of all, the band seldom uses a guitar at all. Where most bands would have a flat-picker, Crooked Still has Tristan Clarridge, a cellist who uses his instrument to create a deep resonant aural soup in which other sounds can bubble. He also plays in a style that’s more bop than classical, one akin to what Natalie Haas does in her collaboration with Alisdair Fraser. Perhaps that’s no accident; Crooked Still’s fiddler is Natalie’s younger sister, Britanny, and though she can lay down licks with the best string players, she mainly joins double bass player Cory DiMario, and banjo wizard Gregory Liszt in putting down ambient grooves. When Crooked Still get things cranked up, there isn’t much empty space in the room, and sounds meld like a bluegrass gamelan rather than simply setting up the next solo. And this is as it should be. The instrumentalists are sublime in their own right, but the centerpiece of the band is vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. Hers is a glorious voice that is, at once, muscular yet soft as silk. On stage her exuberance and the ease with which beautiful notes pour out of her mouth are so infectious that it’s hard not to fixate on her. You should look around, though. This band isn’t flashy on stage, but there’s a lot going on. Just because Crooked Still doesn’t go in for a lot of prolonged solos doesn’t mean they’re a simple chord-progression band. Like jazz musicians, polyphonic and polyrhymic sounds are kicking about the stage and come together in a harmonious whole.

Crooked Still mostly played selections from its most recent CD, Some Strange Country (Signature Sounds) and these also indicate that this is not your father’s bluegrass music. How about a cover of “You Got the Silver,” originally recorded by The Rolling Stones? But Ms. O’Donovan can sing anything—an old chestnut like “The Golden Vanity,” bad times songs such as “I’m Troubled,” a fragile Celtic song such as “Wind and Rain,” one recorded by Emmylou Harris (“Orphan Girl”), or achingly beautiful numbers such as “Sometimes in this Country.” The dancey backbeat to many of Crooked Still’s arrangements are another reason why young folks love them. To be a 100% objective, Crooked Still’s show was not flawless. The band needs to work on ending their songs with the same flourish with which they open—quite a few dense arrangements petered out and left the audience uncertain as to when to applaud. In like fashion, the textured instrumentation on occasion felt like works in progress in which the timing was ever-so-slightly off. But for my money, I’ll take imprecise innovation over paint-by-the-numbers any day of the week. Check out this band if they come anywhere near you. The worst that will happen is that you’ll fall madly in love with Aoife O’Donovan, a fine first step in plumbing the depth of the rest of the music.

Military Blindness: Don’t Look, Don’t Think, Don’t Tell the Truth

I’ve always taken a contrarian view of the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue policy for several reasons, not the least of which is that my idea of balancing the federal budget is to slash the Pentagon budget by two-thirds. I think that having a large military only encourages unscrupulous politicians to get involved in global military adventurism. Nor am I among those who valorize warrior culture; I share the viewpoint of Eugene Debs who, in 1917, observed that he couldn’t see the point of asking one group of poor workers to put on uniforms and go halfway around the world to kill another group of poor workers on behalf of rich masters. And I surely don’t understand why gays or lesbians would ever want to be part of an organization that forces them to be silent, second-class citizens with a Sword of Doom dangling over their heads.

Okay, that’s me and I understand that lots of folks disagree. But here’s what I really don’t get. How can anyone who knows a damn thing about history or military experience possibly believe that having gays and lesbians serve is in any way harmful to the nation’s defense? One hears all manner of nonsense about how homosexuality would harm morale, destroy unit cohesion, and jeopardize military preparedness. Such points of view are a combination of ignorance, mindlessness, and downright lying. They each rest on the presumption that homosexuality has been largely absent from US military history--that just a small band of “perverts” have populated military ranks. (And one also hears of how such people “violated their oaths” by lying about their sexual orientation.)

In my other job as an academic I was recently asked to review a book by Justin Spring titled Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade. It tells the fascinating tale of Steward (1909-1993), a gay man who would have been labeled a “slut” if he had been female. Steward had sex with over a thousand men and kept a detailed journal on each liaison. He also amassed a huge collection of gay pornography, adorned his apartments with graphic gay murals, was one of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey’s major collaborators, and had his journal and explicit photos in plain view during an age in which doing so exposed him to great dangers. Under the name Phil Andros he also wrote homoerotic pulp fiction and operated a tattoo parlor that doubled as a gay parlor. This is to say that Sam Steward was in the closet, but just barely.

What does this have to do with don’t ask/don’t tell? Steward had flings with bohemians and famed figures such as Rudolph Valentino, Thornton Wilder, and Julien Green, but Steward’s number one source for gay sex was the U.S. military. I exaggerate only slightly when I say that, if Steward is to be trusted, there were more straight men in Greenwich Village gays bars than there were on U.S, Navy and Marine Corps bases in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. When Steward wrote, “the U.S. Navy has always had an attraction for me,” his double entendre was as factual as funny. He had sex with hundreds of sailors, Marines, and soldiers and history does not record that World War II, Korea, or the Cold War was lost because of oral sex. (Would it be too much to call Steward’s biography a real Fellatio Alger tale?)

Why don’t we know this story? Well, we do actually. Alfred Kinsey told it, the proliferation of gay literature and bars verified it, and the presence of gay-themed tattoo joints and bars adjacent to military bases was so apparent that it was hardly necessary to “pursue” an investigation of it. How can we say that the U.S. military didn’t harbor homosexuals? One way was to change the definition. For much of Steward’s most active sexual life, a man who gave oral sex or received anal penetration from another was a “homosexual,” but he who was on the other end (so to speak) was not. (That’s the sort of logic that says one is not an automobile driver if another person pays for the gas.) Still another was to fixate on periodic gay bashing administered by uniformed personnel and sell it as the military cleaning up Dodge City. Mainly what we got instead of full disclosure was the great denial. Thus, in the name of ferreting out a small number of “deviants,” gays and lesbians were outted and discharged.

What a farce! And what sanctimonious old demagogues are those politicians who served and now say that gay soldiers and sailors are a threat. Wouldn’t you just love to hook them up to lie detectors and ask them if they ever met up with the likes of Sam Steward?

Like I said, if it were up to me our military would be much, much smaller. But I would also replace don’t ask/don’t tell with a policy suggested in a recent Boston Globe op-ed: don’t know/don’t care.


How to Opt Out of Christmas

Years ago Phoenix and I opted out of Christmas. It wasn’t the money. We simply wanted release from the stress, crowds, and mindless consumerism associated with the most intensely crass and secular of all American holidays. Spare us the Babe in the Manger speeches; Christmas in America has more to do with Adam Smith than Baby Jesus.

We decided to spend December dining with friends, making contact with family, and consuming fun rather than getting caught up in rituals of reciprocity and gluttony. The breaking point came about ten years ago when our nieces were literally swamped under a mound of gifts. They no sooner opened one present than another was thrust in front of them so that every relative under the sun could snap a photo of the bewildered lasses. Soon, they were dazed and numb. As clichéd as it sounds, by the afternoon they were having more fun with the wrapping paper and boxes than with the content. And here’s the worst part: the wreckage represented expenditures of hundreds of dollars, a lot of it from folks who could have used the cash for much better purposes.

Christmas is even more crass when we buy for adults. In our families the holiday had degenerated into a zero sum game--you buy me the item on page 72 of the L.L. Bean catalog and I’ll buy you one from page 104. For adults Christmas involves two types of people: those who can afford to buy things and thus already have what they need and want; and those who can’t afford to engage in consumer frenzy, yet are pressured into doing so. If you fall into the second category, for heaven’s sake stop! Consider this sobering statistic--if you rack up $6,000 on your credit card and try to pay it off by making the minimum payment, it will take roughly 54 years to do so even if you never use the card again! Fa la la, indeed! In trying to conform to manufactured images of seasonal jollity you have placed yourself in economic thralldom akin to that of 19th-century sharecroppers.

It’s our seasonal prayer that none of you are in that sinking boat. But even if you have plenty of dough, there’s simply no reason to put up with the stress and the madness. Just say no. It may already be too late for this year, but it’s not too late to prepare for next. Here’s our how-to-guide for opting out.

1. Step One: The Power of Guilt. We must ask ourselves how Christmas got to be such a mess in the first place. The answer is simple: We’ve been sold a bill of literal and metaphorical goods on what a “perfect” Christmas is supposed to be like. Don’t underestimated how powerful that imagery is. To counter it, you need to present an equally powerful counter image.

As you gather this Christmas, subtly drop remarks such as “We have so much and there are others who have so little. What do you think about scaling way back next year and making donations to charity instead?” My guess is that about three-quarters of your friends and relatives will breathe a sigh of relief and get on board immediately. Your job is to follow up on this and start dropping reminders in late summer and again several weeks before Thanksgiving. Don’t call and say, “We’re no giving presents this year, right?” Instead remind them that they said they wanted to give to charity. Tell them you plan to make a donation in their name and ask which charity they’d like you to support.

2. Step Two: Phasing In the Plan. There will be some people on your list who won’t buy in immediately. One or two may even feel hurt and assume you don’t care enough to buy them something. You need to go gentle with these folks. Start by scaling back instead of going cold turkey. Appeal to their soft side. Do they love animals? In addition to a modest gift, get a really nice card and insert a Heifer International brochure with a note that you’ve given a donation in their name. It may take a few years before these folks stop the gift cycle altogether, but they will.

3. Step Three: Be True to Your Principles. It’s not enough to say you want to spend time with friends and family instead of gift buying; you need to do it! Make sure you schedule dinners out (or potlucks in) with close friends and family. The goal is to make the holidays joyous, not to become the Grinch. And make sure you write those charity checks.

4. Step Four: Replace Consumer Goods with Thoughtful Ones. What people really want during the holidays is a reminder that you care. A plate of home-baked cookies can say this louder than an item plucked from a catalog. So too can cleaning someone’s gutters, fixing a squeaky door, or taking their car in for an oil change. Want to do something really simple? Rent “It’s a Wonderful Life” and watch it with someone you care about. Provide the buttered popcorn. The biggest gift you can give is your time!

5. Step Five: Buy Your Kids a Pen Pal. If you have little ones, it’s hard to eliminate gifts totally, but the U.N. and other agencies have programs that allow you to sponsor a child abroad. Do this for your kids and spend part of Christmas with books, pictures, and maps that illustrate where their pen pal lives. Help your kids write a letter to that child. Follow it up in the weeks to come with language lessons, food, and other such items. I had pen pals as a kid and it made me think about the world. I remember a correspondent from Peru way more than I remember most of my toys.

6. Step Six: Treat Yourself in December. Take some of the dough you’re not spending on prezzies and go out. Take in a concert or a show. Fun is always a good antidote for stress!

7. Step Seven: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones. Okay, I admit it: If I hear “Silent Night” at a mall one more time I may spew. I loathe Christmas carols, plastic reindeer, and blow-up lawn displays. But I’d be the last to say that rituals are bad. If you dislike the old ones, make some new ones. We buy a new tree ornament every year and label it. We also have some invented holidays, such as Moosemas on December 16, which is celebrated by eating clam chowder and drinking Scotch. A small ritual is walking amidst the downtown lights on Christmas Eve after the stores have closed. Another is a short walk in the woods behind the house on late Christmas morning. Still another is playing CDs of English and Scottish carols that we’ve not heard a billion times. Our most cherished is an annual pre-Christmas dinner at a restaurant with our dearest friends.

8. Step Eight: Make Christmas all about the Food. When you ask most people to name their favorite holiday, it’s usually Thanksgiving. Why not? It’s about food, family, and a relaxed pace. So make Christmas into a second Thanksgiving. Prepare foods that take a long time to make. Buy a really, really good bottle of wine. Have a multi-course meal that unfolds over several hours. And, above all, share it with friends and family. Don’t forget to mention how lucky you are to have so much when others have so little.


Paul McKenna Band In Time for the Holidays

Between Two Worlds
Mad River 1019
* * * *

The Paul McKenna Band is a quintet of five seriously talented young Scotsmen. They did the festival circuit in the U.S. last summer, but they remain under known because the band’s album Between Two Worlds was hard to find. No more; Mad River has released it and one of the biggest favors you can do yourself this holiday season is to grab it. If this album isn’t the antidote for the endless barrage of Christmas carols, you’ll probably need to check into rehab!

Paul McKenna has a singular voice, one that is simultaneously soothing yet contains a hint of rasp. Check out “Dancing in the Dark,” a song that is gentle but has an ever-so-faint undercurrent of unsettledness. Another standout is “P Stands for Paddy,” a song borrowed from Ireland that manages to be defiant and sweet at the same time. McKenna’s intriguing voice is backed by a stellar group of musicians, including fiddler Ruaridh Macmillian, who will remind longtime Celtic fans of a young (and smoother) Brian McNeill. That’s partly because Brian was his mentor at the Royal Scottish Academy and Macmillan is unabashed in his admiration for him. David McNee and Ewan Baird handle much of the rhythm work on bouzouki and bodhran (or box drum) respectively, and Macmillan’s swooping melodies are matched note by glorious note by Sean Gray’s flutes and penny whistles.

Sample these lads on YouTube and then buy this album. It will make you feel better than a boatload of fa-la-las.


Screw the GOP and Obama

Once again Tom Toles proves smarter than elected officials.

Have these people no shame whatsoever? In the midst of an acrimonious Congressional debate over whether the George W. Bush tax giveaway to the rich should be continued comes the news that arrogant Republicans have killed a proposal to give Social Security recipients $250 checks to make up for part of the cost of living adjustment (COLA) they didn’t get this year. (And they won’t get one next year either.) The Republicans say that the $14 billion price tax is “too expensive.”

Let’s see if we have this straight—the poor bastards making over $200,000 a year can’t afford a tax increase, but SSI recipients don’t need a COLA? Are you freakin’ kidding me? Have Republicans, at last, no shame whatsoever? And now we have President Obama—aka/ Kid Spineless—saying we “must” pass the GOP bill that extends tax cuts or they’ll not allow middle-class cuts to continue or extend unemployment benefits. What kind of a patsy is Obama, and does he think we’re all that stupid? Here’s our message—let all the tax cuts die and let the benefits run out. And then let the GOP explain why the economy is still in recession.

As for Mr. Obama, its’ time to give up on that sinking ship. He has proven to be the rank amateur his critics charged in 2008. We, like many, were duped. But as The Who sang, “We won’t be fooled again.” If he won’t fight the class war, let him take his sorry act back to Chicago and let’s get someone with more cojones—Hillary Clinton anyone?—to take charge. We’re fed up with all the talk about the need to move to the center. A message needs to be sent to Democrats—if you won’t protect the American masses, we’re not voting for you. And, to paraphrase a Marxist (Groucho), anyone who thinks the Republicans care about anyone except fat cats and robber barons has the brain of a six-year-old child and we bet he was glad to get rid of it.

We’d welcome a tax increase on everyone and some distribution of real pain to the pampered middle class. (Never have so many privileged people whined so much about so little.) If the middle class experienced some real grief—the sort felt by stretched seniors and the jobless working class—maybe they’d turn off Fox News, get off their soft duffs, and get on board the social justice train. The first station is tax equity. Here’s one from the New Testament you won’t hear from the Cadillac evangelicals: “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required…”


Fair Game Exposes Bush Lies Despite Weak Direction

Fair Game (2010)
Directed by Doug Liman
108 mins. PG-13
* * *

Need a reminder that things could always be worse? Check out Fair Game, the film that tells the real-life story of former CIA spy/analyst Valerie Plame and her husband, ex-diplomat Joe Wilson. It’s not a great film, but it is a hammer-to-the-face wakeup call that even if you think Barack Obama is a disappointment, he’s not actively evil like his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Is evil too harsh a word? I don’t think so. Plame, you may recall, was a CIA operative whose identity was outted by the Bush administration in 2003 as a way to exact revenge against her husband. What did Joe Wilson do that was so awful? When he found that a study he authored was doctored and being cited as justification for going to war against Iraq, Wilson wrote to the New York Times to tell the truth. In the lead up to the war, the Bush team told Americans that Saddam Hussein had purchased enriched uranium cake from Niger, which it intended to pack into aluminum tubes and make into nuclear bombs. Problem one: the CIA’s own intelligence said that the tubes could not be used for that purpose. Problem two: the CIA could not confirm that Saddam even had aluminum tubes. Problem three was a doozie: the CIA had sent Wilson to Niger with the express purpose of verifying the purchase of “yellow cake” uranium; he reported back that there was absolutely no truth to the rumor. Understand the magnitude of this. It means that the entire of Gulf War II is a lie. It means that every single U.S. soldier who has died in Iraq has sacrificed his or her life for a deliberate falsehood, as have tens of thousands of Iraqis. Does that qualify as evil?

If not, how about the fact that Dick Cheney forced the CIA to agree with the administration’s concocted reading of non-evidence? How about Karl Rove and Scooter Libby convincing President Bush to strike back at Wilson by exposing his wife’s identity? How about the decision to go forth with that plan even though it meant signing the death warrant of all of Plame’s on-the-ground Iraqi intelligence sources and scientists who had cooperated with her? And how about an organized campaign by the Bush team to smear Plame and Wilson, harass their family, and libel their character? How about creating a climate of fear so palpable that anyone who spoke out—remember the Dixie Chicks fiasco?—found their patriotism impugned? How about creating an environment so poisonous that the actor who plays Bush in this film isn’t even credited on imdb? (Too bad; he got the smirk, swagger, and arrogance down perfectly.)

Fair Game takes its name from Plame’s own memoir and is meant to be taken literally—as in anyone was fair game for the Bush team’s lies—and ironically—as in no sense of fair play whatsoever. It is a well-acted film with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as Wilson, two veterans capable of taking Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s limp script and Doug Liman’s uninspired direction further than they ought to go. Watts is especially good at balancing the character of Plame as a woman who must simultaneously cordon off from her friends her real identity, play spy hardball in dangerous places, be a mother to two small children, and try to express the very emotions she had been taught to suppress in her relations with her husband. Penn gives his usual intense performance and, though I could have done without the clichéd schoolroom speech near the end, he does a decent job of expressing moral outrage and of showing what gave Wilson the sheer chutzpah to speak out at a time in which it cost a lot to do so.

It is a testament to Watts and Penn that this film works as well as it does. It’s a chilling story that’s nearly made pallid by weak direction. Put simply, Liman—best known for directing The Bourne Identity--doesn’t seem to be up to the challenge of presenting nonfiction material this potent. I kept wondering how much better this film would have been if directed by someone such as Sidney Lumet. Go see the film for the civics lesson, not the filmmaking. People have wondered why only Scooter Libby went to jail and why Bush wasn’t impeached. After seeing this film your position will shift and you’ll find yourself asking why he, Cheney, and Rove weren’t lined up against a wall and shot. Fair Game? I think not. How about War Criminals?--LV


Baseball free Agency: A Guide for GMs Who Want to Stay Employed

Which GM will be the next to get burned by baseball's Hot Stove wheeling and dealing?

Somebody told me they’re still playing NFL football. As if I care. Not! December means major league baseball’s Hot Stove League is stoking up. This is the time of the year in which--as they say of second marriages--hope triumphs over experience and guys who have had mediocre careers become instant gadzillionaires. As a public service I offer a guide to save general managers from themselves. Here’s my insider’s take on the free agency market.

Let’s start with the early dumb signing. That would be the Marlins’ decision to sign Javier Vasquez to a one-year $7 million deal. The world “gutless” pretty much sums up Vasquez. He may have “good stuff”--as we’re always told--but the $7 million arm comes with a fifty-cent makeup. He’s had one decent year (Atlanta 2009) and simply can’t pitch under pressure. I’d say $7 million is inflated by a factor of at least half.

Vasquez falls into the category of players who should have been great but never were. They’re like Chicken Little and after a while, a smart GM would just walk away. Here are a group of never-will-bes to which a general manager would have be crazy to offer anything more than a minor league deal: Vicente Padilla, Kyle Farnsworth, Kevin Millwood. Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver. Seriously--these are the kind of guys who get GMs fired. They light up radar guns and look great in tryouts. In actual games they turn .240 guys into Ted Williams. The hitter equivalents to these flameouts are Matt Stairs and Carlos Pena. Why would anyone want a strikeout king with an iron glove like Stairs? Pena hits lots of homeruns. The problem is he hits almost nothing else. Do you give several million to a player who can’t hit .200? Not me.

Closely related to the above are the guys who were good at one time, but who have been so ravaged by injuries that it simply makes no sense to offer serious money: Brandon Webb, Erik Bedard, Freddy Garcia, Scott Prior, Ben Sheets. These were rising stars once, but they’re supernova now. Sign only at bargain basement prices.

And let’s hear it for the over-the-hill gang. These guys would be worth Filene’s Basement prices, but if they start talking salad days salaries, hide the checkbook: Johnny Damon, Lance Berkman, Edgar Renteria, Orlando Hudson.

A subset is the don’t-touch-this guys who are either poison or steroid frauds, with Jason Giambi and Jose Guillen topping the list. And then there’s Manny Ramirez, who has a category of his own titled “More Trouble than He’s Worth.” In the flat-out “Stick-a-Fork-in-Him-Done” category is Jason Varitek.

Also to be avoided are the walk-year wonders. Heading this list is Carl Pavano. I don’t want to hear about his “turn around year” in Minnesota. Let Pavano pitch three straight decent years and I’ll remove him from the Turkey list. Until then, any GM who fills his carcass full of green stuffing is as stupid as Brian Cashman four years ago. Pavano’s 97-89 lifetime. How does that translate into anything other than short change? While I’m on the topic, why on earth would anyone offer Adrian Beltre a multiyear contract? A little history. The dude hit .334 in Los Angeles in his walk year in 2004 and then averaged around .255 in five mediocre years in Seattle. In 2010, another walk year, he hit .321 in Boston. Detect a pattern here?

Are there any bargains out there? Austin Kearns is a good buy for a team in need of a solid backup outfielder, and I’d be tempted to pay Magglio Ordonez an incentive-laden one-year deal rather than overpaying for Jayson Werth, especially if I’m an AL GM. Those NL guys have a habit of flaming out in the AL. Besides, I think Werth will end up back in Philly.

So let’s get to the Big Names in free agency. Add me to the list of those leery of Carl Crawford. The Angels are Jonesing for him and I’d say “good luck” and save my money. I would have wanted Crawford three years ago, but his game is simply built too much on speed and he’s already lost a step. He’s a solid player, but not worth what will be demanded. Love Scott Downs, but do you surrender a first-round draft choice and a supplemental for a situational lefty? Not me. I’m also fond of closer Rafael Soriano, but he’s a Scott Boras client and will command way more than his actual value.

This leaves Mariano Rivera and all any sane person can say to the Yankees is, “Pay the man.” At age 41 he’s still among the best in MLB. Who can you sign with an ERA of 1.80? Nobody. On the other hand, as big a fan as I have been of
Derek Jeter,
three years at $45 million strikes me as very charitable. It may be time for the Yankees to remind Jeter’s agent that they let Damon walk last year. Jeter would not get half of this on the open market, so hardball is the game to play. Face-saving gesture: add a passel of incentives to Jeter’s contract. Hey, if he returns to form and hits .330 again, it would be worth another $5 million, yes?

This leaves the big prize, Cliff Lee. I like Lee, but I don’t like him for more than three years and I think it will take five or six to sign him. This leaves the Yankees as the clear favorites to sign him. If they do, they need to think of it as three years of production and two (or more) years of charity. He should get three years at $60 million; he’ll probably get five at $120 million. Lee has said he doesn’t like pitching in the Texas heat and who can blame him? Arlington in August is more suitable for a reptile ranch than Rangers baseball. But if he takes inflated dough to go to the Bronx he’d better help deliver championship 28, or he’ll be the new Carl(a) Pavano and the Texas sun will seem like Baffin Island compared to the scorching he’ll get in the New York media.


James McMurtry Live in Europe

James McMurtry
Live in Europe
Lightening Red Records
* * * *

The word has been out for some time now: James McMurtry is a musical tour de force. Think the storytelling ability of his father (author Larry McMurtry), the sardonic wit of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt’s wry commentary of life on the downside, and Steve Earle’s grit. Live in Europe is proof that McMurtry’s also a helluva live performer. On stage with his longtime band—now no longer officially called The Heartless Bastards—McMurtry served the Europeans a zesty slice of Americana. The CD opens with the swamp rock “Bayou Tortue,” a visit to a place where “maybe we’ll get lucky, maybe get shot.” Looking for easy answers? Keep looking, because McMurtry prefers tales of people searching for and not finding them. But he sure can spin interesting tales about the journey to nowhere. “Just Us Kids” starts with a group of dropouts fed up with this “small town bullshit” and takes us on a trip with stops in California, Mexico, divorce court, the skids, and old age. Call it the tour of Baby Boomer casualties. This album is chockfull of folks that don’t quite fit in—a troubled Gulf-War-vet-turned-wrangler (“Ruby and Carlos”), a wanderlust-stricken woman who can gamble and quote Proust (“Restless”), and various folks who do what they know they ought not to do (“You’d a Thought”). McMurtry works each song hard, slinging his electric guitar through that interstice in which folk, rock, and country music collide and shatter.

McMurtry is currently touring solo across the United States and I can think of little better than catching a performance and taking the Europe album home with you as a memento.

Check out some good audio clips on his Website: http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/


Old Blind Dogs New Release Solid But Not Their Finest

Old Blind Dogs

Wherever Ye May Be

Compass 7-4542-2

* * *

Why the funeral sepia-colored album cover? Why are Aaron Jones and Fraser Stone dressed like gravediggers and Ali Hutton like a greasy undertaker? And why does Jonny Hardie look like an apparition from the past? If you recognize those names as the lineup of the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs, you’ll know that OBD seldom does what you’d expect and Wherever Ye May Be, their latest album, is no exception. As we learn in the liner notes, they have assumed the role of pschopomps--which is also the name of one of the tracks. If you don’t know that word, don’t be embarrassed--I had to look it up myself. Psychopomps are mythical beings who escort souls between this world and the next--guides such as Charon, Anubis, Epona, Azrael, and Virgil.

Old Blind Dogs have long been known for raucous sets, fiddle-, percussion- and pipe-driven compositions that melt the borders between rock and Celtic music. The set “Pyschopomp” aims to obliterate the ultimate border. That’s not the theme of the entire album, but it does seem to have impacted OBD as the music is more controlled and moody than usual. “St. Kilda,” for example, opens with a funerary drone and Hardie’s delicate and wistful fiddle. This traditional song was originally inspired by unrequited love, but OBD’s opening instrumental is somber enough to accompany a hearse. (They do finish it off with lively pipe, conga, and harmony vocals.) I don’t mean to imply that this is a depressing album--far from it. They are plenty of high-spirited selections such as “Scotland Yet,” the jazzy “Room with a View,” and “Copper Kettle,” which is about the brewing of whiskey, for heaven’s sake. Still, the overall mood is quieter and reflective than usual. It also spotlights Aaron Jones’s lead vocals more than Stone’s percussion, Hutton’s pipes, or Hardie’s fiddling. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that hand drums create OBD’s signature rhythms, the album could use more pipe-fired spark, and Hardie is, simply, one of Scotland’s best at the bow and is conspicuous by his relative absence. Even the big sets sound more subdued than usual.

The quality of musicianship is uniformly high throughout and I’ve no hesitation in recommending the album, especially if you’re unfamiliar with OBD. However, I also suspect that long time fans will agree with me that this is merely a so-so effort in the sweep of the band’s output. But then again, OBD has set a pretty high bar over the years, hence middle-of-the-road for them would be top-of-the-heap for lesser bands.--LV

Here's a YouTube link of OBD when they get things fired up.


I Can't Imagine John Lennon in Nowhere boy

Nowhere Boy (2010)
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
98 mins. Rated R (language, mild sexuality)
* *

Nowhere Boy was rushed into early U.S. release to coincide with what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday. Alas, there is very little reason for you to make haste to see it; this film is—at best—a video rental for an evening in which you’re in the mood for something more schmaltzy than provocative.

If you want revelations about the making of The Beatles, look elsewhere. Nowhere Boy is a tepid relationship triangle whose only twist is that the trio in question consists of adolescent John (Aaron Johnson); his aunt and guardian, Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas); and his biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). When John’s beloved uncle George dies, John is convulsed by rebellion and teenaged angst that leads him to seek out his birth mother. It’s not exactly like she’s hard to find--she’s Mimi’s sister and also resides in Liverpool. She’s also a loose party girl who plants the rock and roll seed in John’s soul. Soon we see John mastering his pawnshop guitar—and if you believe the soundtrack music can possibly come from that instrument you’ve obviously never held a guitar. John gathers a small group of other Liverpool quasi-rebels who share his love for American rock and African-American rhythm and blues. That circle, of course, includes George Harrison (Sam Bell) and Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster), the latter of whom is younger than John but knows way more about music and technique. Unless you were raised on another planet, you know the rest—Liverpool clubs to The Quarrymen to Germany to… The Beatles.

But, again, the film isn’t about the band. Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based (very loosely) on Julia’s memoir. It is really a battle for young John’s affections between buttoned-up Mimi and good-times Julia, and there’s quite a bit of implied sexual frisson between the latter two. But don’t expect anything risqué to be played out in Sam Taylor-Wood’s color-within-the-lines direction. The film meanders toward abrupt revelations that seem tacked on, and to forgiveness scenes that could have been written for the Lifetime channel. Let’s start with the fact that most of it is made up. John Lennon knew who his mother was and had extensive contact with her from the time he was eleven-years-old. Now let’s move onto the film’s pop psychology. It turns out that most of this is also fanciful; Lennon’s own memoirs are not exactly on par with Greenhalgh’s script. Add a flat tone to the production and direction, and this film veers dangerously close to turkey terrain. Were it not for Kristen Scott Thomas’s steely performance, it would be hard to care about any of what we see on the screen. She’s easily the best thing in the film and strikes all the right chords as an ice queen in search of her defrost button. Also superb is the doe-eyed Sangster as Paul. Sangster looks and acts the part of a fifteen-year-old--reticent, fearful, and seeking to fit in, but capable of occasional flairs of one-upmanship and resilience. (I only rate this film with two stars out of five in honor of the aforementioned performances.)

Aaron Johnson is actually just twenty, but he looks older and isn’t very convincing as John. When he takes one of his various tantrums, it comes off as a histrionic older person overacting rather than a bout of teenage rage. By contrast, Duff appears too young to be Julia. When she and Johnson appear together, one almost expects them to be a couple as they look the part. But the worst miscasting is reserved for Liverpool, which has been scrubbed and sanitized. One gets no sense whatsoever of the city as a played-out blue-collar grime pit. Those who know the story of The Beatles know that part of their story is covered in the filth of the city’s docks and the meanness of its streets. When Taylor-Wood touches on the city’s toughness—and it is onl y a touch—it feels and looks like an American Graffiti outtake. I half expected to see the leather-clad Liverpool punks burst into a song-and-dance routine.

The film lacks grit, verisimilitude, and coherence. Imagine this as the story of John Lennon? No, I can’t. Nor can I imagine he’d have had anything to do with this production if he was still among us. --LV


Winter's Bone a Bleak Masterpiece

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Directed by Debra Granik

100 mins. Rated R (language and violence)

Winter’s Bone isn’t knocking anyone dead at the box office for several reasons: it’s an independent film, it has no star power, it lacks a major distributor, and its story line is bleak and depressing. But make no bones about it--it’s the best American film of 2010.

Winter’s Bone guts the American Dream like an illegally jacked deer. Its protagonist is Ree Dolly, Jennifer Lawrence in a performance that makes all the other Oscars hopefuls look like poseurs. Ree is a girl with deep troubles, not the least of which is that she’s seventeen and doesn’t have the luxury of being an adolescent. She lives in a ramshackle Ozarks cabin with a catatonic mother and two young siblings for whom she’s the de facto caregiver. Her daddy is AWOL and (apparently) a bail jumper who used the cabin to secure freedom before his court appearance. Ree needs to find him and make sure he keeps that date, or she, her brother, her sister, and her crazy mother will lose the cabin. Her journey through the Ozarks backwoods in search of her father makes Dante’s Inferno seem like a stroll through a tulip farm.

Director Debra Granik, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Rosellini, shows us an America most people would rather pretend doesn’t exist. Think lawless Appalachia, mountain poverty, and blood feuds are relics of the past? Replace the moonshine stills of yesterday with meth labs, and the 19th century Ozarks become a 21st century nightmare where the code of the hills prevails, and where folks would rather mete out mountain justice than ask the local sheriff so much as the time of day. It’s just the way things are and people like Ree don’t get to have prolonged childhoods; their futures are dictated by circumstance, not dreams.

Jennifer Lawrence is stunning, a woman-child who must swallow pride, stare horror in the face, and grow up faster than anyone should. She strikes a perfect balance between steely resolve, resignation, sorrow, and fear. Almost as good is John Hawkes as her uncle Teardrop, the brother of Ree’s missing father. He has a tender side, but he’s as incendiary as dry straw in a blowtorch factory. One of the film’s open questions is whose side he’s on.

Open questions are among the many things that make this film special. Looking for easy-to-digest answers? Don’t. Looking for nostrums? None here. Want a tidy resolution? Sorry, life isn’t like that--especially for those who are dealt cards from the losing middle of a stacked deck. This is not an easy film to watch, but view it you should. It will leave you shattered, outraged, and perhaps horrified. But I will guarantee you will not forget it. Call this one a dark masterpiece. Find out why this adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.


Emmylou Harris Thrills Sold-Out Crowd

Emmylou Harris

November 11, 2010

Calvin Theater

Northampton, MA

Emmylou Harris performed before a sold-out Calvin Theater on Thursday November 11 and once again demonstrated why she’s an American treasure. It’s not easy to turn a thousand-seat auditorium into a living room, but she managed it.

At 63 Harris has lost surprisingly little of the power or range of her youth, and the most visible effect of all the years on the road is that she’s more graceful and gracious than ever. She certainly looked the part of the reigning queen of cerebral country folk music as she stood center stage, perfectly coiffed and sporting an elegant gold necklace that accented a spangly flowing skirt, black top, and—of course—finely tooled boots. Watching her work with her four-piece band—which included longtime touring partners Stuart Duncan (mandolin, fiddle) and Phil Maderia (accordion, keyboards)—makes you understand instantly why other musicians love working with Harris. It’s always about the song with Harris. As singular as her voice is, she’s never afraid to allow a thick aural ambience to envelop it, nor does she need to hog the spotlight. In fact, she spent a considerable amount of time walking out of it, turning her back to the front, and jamming with the band. Every now and then you get the impression that she’d be quite the whiz on the dance floor. The songs demanded that she not stray far from the microphone, but she usually made her back with sashays suggestive of waltzes and two-steps.

Harris thrilled the crowd with a lot of familiar material, in part because she hasn’t had a solo release since All I Intended to Be in 2005. That title is a great metaphor for Harris in late career. As she told the audience, “I never wanted to be anything but a folk singer and now here I am.” Let’s first send a virtual hug to a singer who hasn’t run from the “f” word by inventing new terms to avoid saying “folk music.” With that out of the way we can say that there probably isn’t a genre that totally contains Harris. Yes, there are sweet folk songs—and has there ever been a sadder one than her cover of Steve Earle’s “Goodbye,” or one that blows the lid off the American Dream like “Red Dirt Girl”?—but Harris’s repertoire is also filled with country, Appalachian, and pop songs, and since her initial collaboration with Daniel Lanois more than a decade ago, the arrangements are multi-layered and sophisticated. But when she needs to, she can still peel away those layers and use stark simplicity in ways that astonish. At one point near the end of the show a microphone failed and a horrendous electronic crack ripped across the auditorium. Unfazed, she stepped to the front of the stage with Duncan and Medeira and delivered an a capella unamplified gospel song and you could hear every note, even up in the nosebleed seats. She came back for her encore with her two dogs in tow, both of whom soaked up some loving from the front two rows. Harris is a long-time animal rights activist and gave a plea for folks to adopt shelter dogs before launching into the finale, a cover of “Pancho and Lefty.” Smiles as wide as the prairie were upon the faces of the audience as they poured out upon the street. Many seemed to meander, as if dazed and not ready for the evening to end. Well, yeah….

A plug also to the evening’s opening act, a young quartet from Rhode Island who call themselves The Low Anthem. Let’s just say there are no categories for this band. Reedy-voiced lead singer and songwriter Ben Knox Miller sounds a bit like a young John Prine, but the music is another thing altogether. What label would you apply to a piece arranged for two oboes, a pump organ, a French horn, a harmonica, and a musical saw? The four musicians spent stage time passing off turns on the dozen or so instruments on stage. Although their set contained some songs that might comfortably fit in a folk or country box, most of it did not. In fact, lots of it was a meditative mash-up of psychedelia, trance, and four-part harmony singing. It’s hard to say if this music would be enjoyable out of its live context—but The Low Anthem is certainly a fascinating group to catch live. We’ll weigh in on their recording Oh my God, Charlie Darwin when we’ve had a chance to listen, but the title alone clues you that orthodoxy isn’t in the offing.


The Social Network is Creepy and Fascinating

The Social Network (2010)

Directed by David Fincher

PG-13, 121 mins. (Sexuality, nudity, language)

* * * *

Mark Zuckerberg is the smartest guy in every room he enters. The problem is that he knows it and he’s also either suffering from Asperger Syndrome or is a full-blown sociopath. As such, Zuckerberg has the sensitivity of a two-year-old, the morals of a sadist, and the self-control of a Turret’s patient. And he’s not even the most unlikable figure in the film. That dishonor would go to Jason Timberlake playing Napster creator Sean Parker, who packs more crude than the Gulf oil spill.

Be forewarned; seeing this (barely) fictionalized account of how Facebook came into being will make you immediately want to do five things: trash your Facebook account, kill Zuckerberg, assassinate the founder of Napster, call for a federal investigation of Harvard, and start a class war. Is The Social Network real? Technically it’s fictional and is based on the Ben Mezrich novel The Accidental Billionaire. Zuckerberg says it’s fanciful, Parker (Sean Fanning in real life) hasn’t said much, and several of the litigants who claimed Zuckerberg bilked them are silent because they signed non-disclosure agreements. But the fact that no defamation lawsuits have been brought against Mezrich, Fincher, or script writer Aaron Sorkin suggests that none of the villains of this piece--and there are precious few good guys--feels confident enough to air their views of the truth in public. (Sorkin insists the film is pretty close to reality.)

The film opens at Harvard in 2003. Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has just been dumped by his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and retreats to his room to slander her on his very-public blog, get drunk, hack into Harvard data bases, and set up a Website that allows testosterone-poisoned Harvard males to rate the relative “hotness” of Harvard coeds. This was the genesis of Facebook. Without giving away too much, getting to the Facebook of the present also involved Zuckerberg double-crossing a trio of secret society lads (including the smug Winklevoss twins, both played by Armie Hammer); putting the screws to Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), his only friend; and coming under the Svengali-like influence of Sean Parker/Fanning. The unindicted coconspirator is Harvard, a fetid cesspool of arrogance, self-indulgence, sexism, bad behavior, and contempt for everyone who lacks the social privileges enjoyed by the Crimson-clad spawn of Satan. Among the many questions raised in the film is why rich kids are allowed to get away with actions--sexual harassment, hacking, invasion of privacy, lewdness, drug dealing--that would land a public university student in prison. (Still another question is how this film managed to wrangle a PG-13 rating.)

The Social Network is like watching a horror flick; we don’t want to look but we do. Credit Fincher’s focused direction, Sorkin’s acidic script, and superb performances all around, especially that of Eisenberg, who keeps our eyes glued on a character who is essentially a monster, and an unsympathetic one at that. The movie unfolds at a crisp pace and deftly handles a task that is hard to capture on film: the creative process. For all of his faults, Zuckerberg was/is a genius and to watch him build Facebook’s architecture and envision its potential miles ahead of everyone else is reminiscent of the scenes in Amadeus in which Mozart dictates scores from his sick bed while poor Salieri struggles to keep up.

I‘m not sure if we can call this a “good” film, as there just isn’t much social redemption to be found. It is, however, an endlessly fascinating one. See it, and then go home and take a shower. Trust me--you’ll definitely feel like you need one.

Tax Cuts for the Rich and Endless Toil for the Masses

Are you kidding me? Was Barack Obama kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an evil replica? Or is he just so friggin’ stupid that we should just give up on him?

From Washington, DC comes startling news. First, President Obama has offered an olive branch to the Republicans by saying he’ll consider an extension of tax cuts on the rich. For the love of Pete, the tax increase was only going to affect those making over $250,000 and he’s going to cave in?

There’s so much wrong with this that one hardly knows where to begin. First of all, we have the pathetic case of Democrats behaving as if they are the minority party. I grant that they’re quickly mismanaging themselves to that status, but…hello! Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. That’s one-third more than Ronald Reagan had when he was first president, but he had the guts to fight for his agenda. An inability to govern has plagued Obama from day one. Remember the renting of garments that Democrats lacked the super-majority to prevent filibusters? I’m sick of listening to Democrats whine. So here is a series of call-outs to President Obama.

First, govern or get out! Want something? As the British say, put a bit of stick about. As chief executive, Mr. President, you have the power to dole out and withhold goodies. Lyndon Johnson took on Congress when he wanted the Civil Rights Act passed. Among his tactics was a threat to veto every bill that came onto his desk until it was passed. Withholding highway funds finally turned the trick. Get a spine, Mr. President.

Right after you’ve grown a spine, get your ears cleaned out because apparently you’re not hearing Republicans who shout that their number one objective is to make you a one-term president. Helping this lot is like lending your pocketknife to a man who vows to slit your throat. Or maybe you don’t care that the GOP wants to give the country back to the thieves who screwed it up in the first place.

Or maybe it’s courage you need, though one wouldn’t think it would take a lot to point out that a person making a quarter of a million dollars ought to repay the nation that enriched him. Who will pay if the Bush tax cuts aren’t renewed? Individuals making five times more than the average family income. You know what? If you make that kind of bread you shouldn’t be whining about your tax bill; you should be on your knees and grateful. C’mon Mr. President--tell these greedy bastards to shut up and pay up. Who knows? You might actually convince someone you have leadership skills if you fight that battle.

If all of this isn’t enough, we get today’s news that once again the GOP is targeting Social Security. If they get their way, the age for full benefits will rise to age 69. Here’s another issue I’m sick of hearing about. Everyone who has a calculator knows how to make Social Security solvent--remove the income cap. As it now stands individuals stop paying Social Security on income above $106,800. Why, for heaven’s sake? Once again, if you’ve that kind of money you can afford to pay another 6.2% tax on it. A lot of us pay higher rates than that in sales taxes. But what’s the message here? More for the rich even if the rabble has to work until they drop? Tell the rich that they need to help secure the future of the elders. And tell young people moaning over SSI taxes that if they aren’t willing to pay there simply won’t be jobs of them--the geezers will have them all.

So I’ve attached an old cartoon from the Industrial Workers of the World. It shows how IWW members thought the world operates. One doesn't have to be as radical as the IWW to think that maybe it was onto something. As the old labor song put it, Mr. President, which side are you on? If it’s with the lot on the top layers, then I couldn’t care less if you lose in 2012.